On the annivesary of one of the darkest days in Brazilian football we revist Jack Lang's long read from 2018 on their astonishing defeat to Germany four years prior.
At what point was it over, exactly?
Certainly long before the sixth and seventh goals, scored by André Schürrle, who must have wandered off to the toilet when the whole "let's not embarrass them" conversation was taking place in the Germany changing room at half-time. The fifth, maybe, or perhaps the fourth, offered up on a platter by a punch-drunk Fernandinho. But no, Brazil's race was already run by that stage. The cameras had already started to pick out tear-stained faces in the crowd, face paint smudging into collars and PTSD on order.
The third or second, then? Those were the goals that turned a bad start into a disastrous one, that knocked the wind out of a nation. The hosts were in a World Cup semi-final and then they weren't, suffocated and subjugated by that endless blur of Kroos, Müller, Klose, Kroos, Özil, Khedira, Kroos, Müller. Or was it over even before the first whistle, that po-faced funeral procession for Neymar betraying some fundamental misalignment between the mental state of the players and the nature of the task at hand? Was there so much emotion, so much pressure that summer – "It was like Brazil had come to participate in the Hunger Games," said Zico – that an implosion was inevitable?
Watching it back now, one cannot help but be reminded of the pronouncements made by José Maria Marin, the cadaverous head of Brazil's football federation. "Only a catastrophe will prevent us winning," he said on the eve of the tournament, to no obvious useful end. "If we lose, we're all going to hell." The words had a macabre slant then. By the time Germany were finished, they had taken on the air of prophesy.
Galvão Bueno isn't known for his mastery of nuance, but this is bad even by his standards. Miller? Kross? The grand old dinosaur of Brazilian commentary needs to spend the interval practising these German player names. Except, um, no, he's probably going to have more important things to do now, because it's 2-0 and Brazil are sinking like an anvil in a swimming pool. "They're coming again!" he hollers as Toni Kroos (two Os, one S) clobbers the third goal past Júlio César. "Brazil have completely lost control of the game! Not even the most pessimistic fan could have imagined this!" The exclamation marks are almost audible.
Predictably, he has hit 10 on the dial pretty early. He digs deep to muster more doom for goals four ("It's turning into a stroll!") and five ("How absurd. It's like a training match between a national team and a bunch of kids!"), but by the time the second half rolls around, resignation has set in. When Oscar scores his non-consolation goal in the final minute, Galvão's trademark "gooooooooooool" is scaled back to a mere "gol" – a telling verbal white flag from a man whose soul has long since exited his body.
1. The Reaction
A Brazilian fan shows his frustration
Image credit: Getty Images
The Brazilian press pulled no punches. "Embarrassment, shame, humiliation," read the front page of O Globo, who labelled it "Mineiratzen" – a grim reference to the Maracanazo, the Seleção's galling final-game defeat to Uruguay 64 years earlier. "Congratulations to the runners-up from 1950, who were always accused of bringing the greatest shame to Brazilian football," howled EXTRA, running with that theme. "Yesterday, we truly understood what shame is."
"What we saw at the Mineirão was not a game of football but a genuine massacre," wrote O Globo's Renato Maurício Prado, whose colleagues really went to town with their player ratings, awarding every single member of the Brazil side zero out of 10 and assigning them one damning adjective. "Júlio César: buried. Maicon: crushed. Dante: lost. David Luiz: confused. Marcelo: aimless. Luiz Gustavo: demolished. Fernandinho: wild. Paulinho: outclassed. Oscar: weak. Hulk: shambolic. Ramires: irrelevant. Bernard: misguided. Fred: tragic. Willian: insipid. Felipão: vanquished."
The imagery was every bit as striking as the words it accompanied. There was Luiz Felipe Scolari, head in hands on O Estado de São Paulo and with seven fingers raised on O Dia; A Tarde turned its front page into a tombstone. Lance!, the sports daily, left its cover blank but for one line of text: "Indignation, outrage, pain, frustration, anger, shame, pity, disappointment... Express how you’re feeling and make this cover yourself." One imagines that any budding artists probably went the way of the painter from The Fast Show, such was the inescapable horror of the source material.
Over time, the 'sete a um', as it came to be known, was woven into the country's rich lyrical tapestry. This was in part a gesture of self-flagellation, a modern-day configuration of what playwright Nelson Rodrigues called 'complexo de vira-lata' (mongrel complex) – the internalised inferiority felt by Brazil on the world stage. In the same way that that expression had worked its way into the lexicon in the wake of the 1950 World Cup ("Our Hiroshima," as Rodrigues so bombastically described it), the 7-1 became shorthand for a crushing failure or setback, be it in football, politics or any other field.
Simultaneously, the age-old Brazilian knack for making light of hardships began to shine through. If the nation's winkingly doom-laden catchphrase before that summer had been Imagina na Copa (imagine how bad things will be at the World Cup), it was to be replaced by Gol da Alemanha, a refrain that graced countless memes. Print columns, too, as in Miguel Sokol's deadpan end-of-year review for Rolling Stone Brasil: "After 64 years – goal for Germany – we proudly hosted another edition – goal for Germany – of the World Cup. Don't look now, but there's something lurking under your bed. It's a... goal for Germany."
Others went further still in pursuit of morbid laughs. Some wag or other conjured a website called Brasil-Alemanha Eterno, which, before sadly slipping into internet heaven (or, more realistically, hell), answered the all-important question, "What if the game was still going on?" One year after the event, Brazil had at least managed to score 5,834 goals; the problem was that Germany were up to 43,754.
Oh God, here come the unwanted records now, charging over the horizon like horsemen. This is now Brazil's heaviest defeat since 1920, and their joint-heaviest ever. It's the biggest thrashing in a World Cup semi-final. Miroslav Klose, and not Ronaldo, is now the World Cup's all-time leading goalscorer. Salt, meet wound. Still, when one door closes another opens. Four goals conceded in the space of six minutes and 40 seconds? That'll take some beating.
2. The Jettisoned
Andre Schuerrle of Germany (L) celebrates scoring his team's sixth goal past Julio Cesar of Brazil
Image credit: Getty Images
"From my 23, at least 14 or 15 will be in the squad in 2018," said Scolari, seeking to ward off an inquest into his selection. But his powers of prediction have proven to be wayward – only six of his players (it would have been seven but for an injury to Daniel Alves) have been selected this summer – and the fates of those who have faded from view gives the lie to the notion that 2014 was a solid foundation upon which his successors could build. Ten players – Júlio César, Victor, Dante, Maxwell, Henrique, Ramires, Hernanes, Bernard, Jô, Fred – have not played a single minute for Brazil since that World Cup. Maicon, who stuck around for the next friendly before being binned, can be added to that list. Throw in Oscar, David Luiz, Hulk and Luiz Gustavo, who have not pulled on the yellow jersey since 2016 and were never even in the conversation for Russia, and you are left with a pretty damning picture.
A cruel imbalance of opportunity, too. For while Marcelo, Fernandinho, Paulinho and Willian – plus Thiago Silva and Neymar, who missed out against Germany – will have the chance to write a happier story this summer, those immediately cast aside after the 7-1 have long known that it will forever define their Brazil careers. Again, there are unhappy echoes of the Maracanazo here: ill-fated goalkeeper Barbosa, who "made Brazil cry" by allowing Alcides Ghiggia's shot to sneak past him on that fated afternoon, would certainly have attested to the traumatic effects of World Cup failure on home soil. But at least the ordeal suffered by the class of 1950 was not captured by a thousand TV cameras and destined to be pored over in microscopic detail. For the 2014 flops there was no hiding place, no mythic veil to spare their dignity.
It's a weight I carry round with me
"When the match ended, I wanted to climb into a hole and never come back," said Fred, whose indifferent form all tournament was always likely to put him in the frame for the role of scapegoat. He immediately knew he would never represent his country again. "I was booed at the Mineirão, my home. After the World Cup I was in a bad way, psychologically." Dante too went through a tough time. It didn't help that he had to return to Germany, or that a few of his Bayern Munich team-mates (Thomas Müller especially) seemed determined to remind him of his sole World Cup start at every opportunity. "That defeat was very, very painful," he told CNN. "It's been hard to get over it. People quickly forget about respect. They forget everything you've done."
Unfunny jokes are one thing, but the centre-back has admitted the fallout from the 7-1 also left him with a feeling of isolation. "You find yourself in a complicated situation, with fewer people to cheer you up," he continued. "You are alone. You have two or three friends helping you, nothing more. You are facing people who, as soon as they have the opportunity, try to hurt you by reminding you of this event. It was very striking and hard."
One of the more gut-wrenching interviews in the wake of the game was given by Júlio César, who later admitted that his distress gave way to a deeply-felt loss of direction in his life. An Indian summer at Benfica provided the goalkeeper with some succour, but he still struggles to escape the gravitational pull of the 7-1 and is under no illusion as to its likely consequences for his legacy. "It's a weight I carry round with me," he said after announcing his retirement in April. "Even today, when I lie down, it's inevitable that I think about it. I'm already imagining the day I die, years from now, when they announce on the news: 'Júlio César, the goalkeeper in the 7-1, has died.'"
Honestly, what is David Luiz doing? He's all over the place. "Vamo, vamo, vamo," he screamed in the tunnel before kick-off, and yes, now you mention it, he did look a tiny bit... frantic. But this? He's playing in about six different positions, and none of them well. Look, there: goal number five. He's not even in the penalty area when Sami Khedira rolls the ball between Maicon's legs. No, hold on, scratch that; he's not even in the shot. Here's a replay, showing nearly half of the pitch, and you still can't see him. Someone once called him a Playstation footballer, but this is far more primitive. It looks like he has been possessed by a spinning top.
3. The Manager
"This is the worst day of my life," Scolari said, before attempting to explain the inexplicable. He called it an apagão – a blackout – and admitted that he, like his players, had been helpless in the face of the German onslaught: "I couldn't change anything; it was one goal after another. There was nothing to be done."
It is doubtful whether any combination of sentences would have sated the public's thirst for blood at this point, but this certainly didn't cut it. An underlying note of flinty defiance, while typical of one of the Brazilian game's great street-fighting men, did little to help his cause: Scolari limped on to the third-place play-off against Netherlands, but the vultures were circling. On 14 July, six nights on from his nadir, it was finally over. His reputation was in tatters, the glory of 2002 forgotten, or at least eclipsed in the short term; in football, as he learnt the hard way, you're only as good as your last World Cup.
"I need a hug," he said at the time. It looked as though he needed a holiday, too. Two weeks later, however, he was back working. Grêmio needed a manager and Scolari, who had won seven trophies across two previous spells with the Tricolor, was available. Motivated, too, even though taking the job meant postponing a period of reflection. "I was planning to give myself some time to come to terms with the situation," Scolari explains to Eurosport over the phone from São Paulo. "I only returned to work that quickly because it was Grêmio. I really identify with the club and with the president, Dr Fábio Koff [who passed away in May], because of the work we did together before. He was like a father to me and always opened doors in my career. "I had a situation that I needed to get over, so I returned to work with lots of enthusiasm. It was quite a different project, renewing their team. I accepted the offer and went to battle."
I've processed what happened, many times over... but forgetting about it? We can't do that.
Results tailed off after a promising start, but at least the daily grind of training sessions, press conferences and matches took his mind off Belo Horizonte. And while Scolari's next move – to China, replacing Fabio Cannavaro as manager of Guangzhou Evergrande – raised a few eyebrows, it allowed him to rediscover his trophy-winning touch: the Tigers won three straight Chinese Super League titles and the Asian Champions League under his stewardship. Now preparing to watch the World Cup in Russia as a fan, Scolari concedes that 2014 left him with a point to prove, despite the strength of his CV.
"You have to continually prove that you've got what it takes to be a top coach," he says. "You have to earn respect for the teams you're managing. You've always got something to prove. Always, always, always. So I did have to prove once more that I was a good manager, that I could win titles again. That's what I did in China, with the help of my staff and particularly the players, who gave everything to win those titles. When you're a football manager, you know that you will go through a tough moment at one point or another. You have to keep working and... not forget, but put it aside. Because you win a lot, too. That defeat happened and wasn't normal, but it makes you think about how to change, how to do things differently."
Still, for all that fighting talk, Scolari admits that the 7-1 will forever mark him, and all of those involved. The wound heals but the scar remains. "I've processed what happened, many times over," he added. "But forgetting about it? We can't do that. We lived through that situation and will always remember it. Our thoughts will always return to it."
God, Germany are good. They're dressed like a super-charged Flamengo team – what a moment to wear that kit for the first time this summer! – and they're just... relentless. Every time you look up, they're applying a new type of pressure. And you know what? They're nice, too. They've been glad-handing on the beaches and stopping for photos at airports. Lukas Podolski is probably applying for Brazilian citizenship at this very instant. And yes, at the interval, deep in the bowels of this barbed crown of stadium, they are agreeing that it would be preferable not to humiliate their hosts. Real gentlemen assassins.
4. The Families
Germany's players celebrate after scoring
Image credit: Getty Images
Current Brazil coach Tite was not at the Mineirão, but the raw emotion of the occasion flowed through his television screen like floodwater. "When Germany scored the goal to make it 4–0, my wife broke down in tears," he wrote recently. "I asked her if she was OK, and she said that she couldn’t help but cry, because she was putting herself in the shoes of the manager’s wife. She knew what it meant – not just for the players and the staff, but also for their families."
What it meant was pain, diluted by the absence of authorship but lent another edge by the feeling of helplessness that comes from watching a loved one suffer and being unable to intervene.
The family of Fernandinho, whose lost-boy act in midfield defied belief at the time and is even more unfathomable at four years' remove, recalled their despair in a segment on Globo's Jornal Nacional. "It was so difficult," explained Maria Gabrielli Machado, the midfielder's younger sister. "You don't even know what you can do to protect him." His mother, Ane Machado, could barely watch. "I felt desperate, seeing his tears and not being able to do anything," she recalled.
At least they could rationalise, put things in perspective. Sophia and Diogo, Dante's children, understandably found the experience harder to digest. "I asked my wife afterwards how the kids reacted," the centre-back told UOL. "They were in the stands and they cried a lot. My son got really upset. I had to talk to him. I told him that his dad would continue working hard and give him reasons to be happier."
One of the billboards at the Mineirão carries the McDonald's slogan, "Amo Muito Tudo Isso" – I really love all this. But they don't love anything, not tonight. They are clawing at their scalps, sobbing into their drinks, clamping their eyes shut and wishing reality into oblivion. Nor is it just the fans. The suspended Thiago Silva looks on from high up in the stands; he has spent much of the tournament in tears but now just looks empty. Neymar, 400 miles away in his Guarujá beach house, squirms. Maybe, decades from now, he will view a broken vertebra as a small price to pay for not being involved in this. After one of the goals the camera zooms in on Fred, shellshocked in the centre circle. "Caralho," he says, with a shake of the head. F**k.
5. The False Start
Dunga meets the press after being re-appointed Brazil manager in 2014
Image credit: Getty Images
In the days that followed the game, shock transmuted into anger. How was it that Brazilian football, once the envy of the world, had fallen so low? Issues that had festered for decades were laid bare under righteous glare of scrutiny, the 7-1 seen not only as a seismic shock, but also as the terminus of a decades-long journey into mediocrity. One could write a trilogy of books on the shortcomings of the Brazilian domestic game, but any potted list would include idiotic club owners, rampant short-termism, fan violence, congested fixture lists, low attendances, corruption, arcane tactics, laughable referees and finances that could generously be characterised as absolutely f****d. And at the top of it all you have the football federation, the CBF, a constellation of greedy old white men that makes the Presidents Club look like a Beaver Scout group.
"There is a crisis in our beloved sport," seethed Romário. "You think the problem is only the players or Scolari? No way. Our football has been deteriorating for years, sucked dry by talentless moguls." Tostão, a World Cup winner in 1970 and now a respected newspaper columnist, agreed. "This is a moment for new ideas," he wrote. "Brazil needs to change the structure. We've been left behind in a number of areas."
The eighth Germany goal
What the Brazilian game needed was an inquest – serious, far-reaching and independent. What it got was a contemptuous shrug from those in charge: just eight days after Scolari's departure, a new manager was appointed. Not someone with fresh ambition, either, but a member of the old guard. A man who had worked for a grand total of 10 months since, yes, being sacked as Brazil coach four years earlier. A man so prone to paranoia about the media that his initial response, when a friend sent him a WhatsApp message asking about the possibility of him reprising the role, had been: "And you reckon Globo will allow that?" A man whose main qualification for the job seemed to be his proximity to Gilmar Rinaldi, the new national-team coordinator and political ally of incoming CBF president Marco Polo del Nero. It was, as Época magazine pithily put it, a case of "Dunga: the eighth Germany goal".
Those hoping for something other than business as usual were left exasperated. "Everything remains the same," sighed Tostão. "There was no attempt to improve things, not even a period of mourning. We didn't take the opportunity to reflect. What Brazilian football needs most is competent, independent professionals, chosen on merit. The exchange of favours is a national plague."
In June 2015, Brazil crashed out of the Copa América at the hands of Paraguay. Dunga blamed a virus and somehow stayed on as coach. The following summer, the Seleção failed to even make it out of their group at the centenary edition of the same tournament. Even the suits at the CBF couldn't bury their heads in the sand on this occasion and sent the Sultan of Sulking on his not-so-merry way. The 7-1 should have been the catalyst for change. Instead, two more years had been flushed down the toilet.
Spare a thought for Bernard. Poor Bernard, with "joy in his legs" (Scolari, poetic) but perhaps not the lungs to stay afloat this far into the deep end. Even he can't have expected to start this game, to step into Neymar's boots. Watch him during the anthem; it's like he's in the middle of a haunting. The temptation is to ask whether he has, at this exact moment, any real notion of what this game could mean, what it might come to represent. But then you look at his face, grimly locked into momento-mori premonition. Of course he does.
6. The Rebirth
"Are you really going to watch on the same TV you watched the 7-1 on?"
There is clearly a note of tongue-in-cheek opportunism to the latest World Cup promotion at São Paulo retail chain Magazine Luiza. Yet such thoughts can have astonishing traction in Brazil, a country that regards superstition as a full-time vocation, and as the Seleção prepare for Russia, the force of 2014 – as cautionary tale and source of bad voodoo – remains undimmed. On the plus side, prospective viewers are unlikely to also need to invest in a new sofa to hide behind. For just 24 months after Dunga's departure, Brazil have travelled to Russia with some of the old lustre restored – on the pitch, if not yet in the corridors of power.
The team, bolstered by youngsters (Marquinhos, Gabriel Jesus) and previously under-used players (Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho), looks more coherent than it has for years. Neymardependência is at an all-time low, but not at the expense of the forward's morale. The spirit in the camp could hardly be better and there is growing, albeit still cautious, belief that the Hexacampeonato – Brazil's much-coveted sixth World Cup title – could be on the horizon. The man chiefly responsible for the turnaround is Adenor Leonardo Bachi, better known by his nickname, Tite. Sanguine, studious – he took a sabbatical year in 2014, heading off for fact-finding stints at Real Madrid, Boca Juniors and Arsenal – and adept at handling the media, the 57-year-old is everything his predecessor was not, and his collaborative approach has both players and backroom staff purring.
We carry this little ghost with us every day.
It has helped that results have been excellent. Brazil were languishing in sixth in South American qualifying but promptly embarked on an eight-game winning run after Tite's arrival, becoming the first team, hosts aside, to book their spot in Russia. Overall, there have been 17 wins (and 16 clean sheets) in 21 games, with the one defeat coming in a friendly against Argentina, played almost in slow motion after both sides had schlepped to Melbourne. If that one hiccup had little impact upon the swell of positivity, a 1-0 success over Germany in March was viewed as a mental hurdle cleared. "This is the biggest test we've had from an emotional and psychological point of view," admitted Tite of the latter match, and while the victory over the same opponents in the final of the Rio Olympics was arguably a more significant breakthrough for those involved (Neymar, Renato Augusto, Marquinhos and Gabriel Jesus all played), it was certainly a smart bit of scheduling.
Still, there is an acknowledgement that the 7-1 remains a factor. As Tite so enigmatically put it earlier in the year: "We carry this little ghost with us every day. It's always there." The task is to use the lingering heartache in the correct way – as fuel rather than motive for fear. The omens are certainly good on that front. "That defeat was a really big blow to all Brazilians, but the players understand that the Brazil shirt is still the most important in the world," Roberto Firmino told this reporter last year. "We put it into our heads that what happened then doesn't matter anymore; it's what we do from now on that counts. Clearly, it was a lesson and we now see it as extra motivation for doing our best on the pitch and bringing the glory years back to Brazil."
If the current crop of players want inspiration, they might be advised to refer to the 2002 chapter in their Seleção history books. Then, as now, Brazil were looking to overcome a galling World Cup defeat. Then, as now, their star player entered the tournament with his fitness in question. But the doubts evaporated as Scolari's charges pulled together, gradually building momentum until the final, when Ronaldo, the half-moon monsoon, completed his personal redemption story. And I needn't remind you who Brazil's victims were in Yokohama that night.
"For me, the really important thing at that World Cup was the unity and mentality," centre-back Roque Júnior tells Eurosport. "We had got through some difficult moments in the qualifiers, and we had players who had lost to France in 1998. Those guys really wanted to win. Rivaldo, for example: every day, all he talked about was wanting to win the World Cup. He was so vocal about it, before and after every game: 'Hey, let's win this. We have to win, we have to win.' He had gone through 1998, losing in a final and returning to Brazil to all those demanding fans.
It was a lesson for all of us – an episode from which we all learnt something
"We wanted to return as champions. We had players who were at their peak and had that desire. I fed off that. Ronaldo had been out for ages – more than two years without playing – but Felipão gave him a chance. He really wanted it, and you could see it. He demonstrated it on the pitch, and it was the same thing with Cafu and Roberto Carlos. That's mentality: arriving at the tournament and knowing that you're there to win. In every training session, every team lunch and dinner, we were thinking about that trophy."
Head coach Tite gestures during a training session of the Brazilian national football team at the squad's Granja Comary training complex
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It is a recipe that Tite's men can follow this summer, says Scolari, with the Mineirão survivors leading from the front. "It will have a positive effect," he insists. "It was a lesson for all of us – an episode from which we all learnt something. The players who played in that game will think about what happened that day, and, because of that experience, will make sure that situation doesn't occur again."
Winning the thing is an altogether more formidable challenge, of course, but Brazil certainly have the talent to go the distance – if they are indeed able to keep that "little ghost" in check. "Look at the example of Rivaldo, who was involved in big defeat and, after that, managed to win it," Roque Júnior continues. "Sometimes life is like that: it takes something from you, but if you persist and don't give up, it rewards you further down the line. You have to go after it.
"Those who played in that semi-final have a fresh chance to play at a World Cup. If I had that opportunity, I would give all that I had to be champion."